Each year the question arrives: what are our plans for July 4th? When my wife asked this question last week, I hesitated. I wish I was only disappointed that the holiday fell on a Wednesday, but the truth is that I didn’t feel like celebrating at all. In many ways, I would rather take a knee on Independence Day.
I know how this might sound. I’m using this holiday as an occasion to complain about an administration I don’t like. I’m ignorant of my privilege and the freedom it allows me. Maybe I should shut up and stop whining. And yet…I’m more aware of the gravity of this holiday now than ever before. The idea of stuffing my mouth shut with hot dogs and closing my eyes to savor the afterburn of fireworks feels more disrespectful than staying at home.
As the Trump administration stretches our institutions to their breaking point and the divide between rural and urban, Republican and Democrat, and even me and my family grows wide, I wonder if we can recover. For 242 years we’ve built structures of governance stone by stone, and now a narcissist tears at the mortar just to see what he might turn over. Even worse, many applaud his efforts. It’s forced me to look to our past, and I’ve realized our history doesn’t just haunt us; it pulsates like the warning signs of a heart attack. The Great American Experiment is in arrest.
But not for the first time. Look at our list of past presidents and you will find a few demagogues and authoritarians. Some, like Andrew Jackson, stood for the common man by ousting establishment leaders and proselytizing the kind of common sense that brushed complexities like ethics under the rug. He orchestrated the Indian Removal Act and subsequent Trail of Tears as well as opposed abolitionist sentiment. His portrait hangs in the Oval Office today.
There were other, more revered models of a strong presidency. I’ve been thinking of one in particular after reading George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which dives into the thoughts of Abraham Lincoln during one of his most vulnerable moments. At a time when our country was far more divided than it is now, he must have questioned the merit of the American Experiment and for whom it was meant. Was it possible to reverse the sin of slavery? What did it matter if the vision of our forefathers failed, if it turned out the people could not govern themselves? A great deal, he believed.
Lincoln suspended constitutional rights and pushed the boundary of presidential power. But to compare his actions to those of Donald Trump is laughable. Where one aimed to renew the American Experiment, the other toys with the entire system like a bargaining chip. Lincoln’s famous executive order was the Emancipation Proclamation; Trump’s were the travel bans. In a time when we desperately need Lincoln’s spiritual successor, we have a Jacksonian clown. How can we celebrate our nation in 2018?
Looking back on how I’ve spent past Independence Days, I’m reminded of its significance to me personally. It was on July 4th that I met my wife. We were boarding a plane as recipients of Fulbright grants to teach English as well as American culture. Ambitious and eager, I thought I understood national pride then. But now, beneath the despair of our times, I sense something even more potent. I feel an empathy unfolding. I see Women’s Marches and the fervor of Black Lives Matter. I see the Trump administration reversing strategy in reaction to outcries on social media. I sense a boiling anger towards the man dragging our nation toward a precipice as the leaders of his party raise no alarm, knowing what they stand to gain. I hear voices filling their silence: the voice of citizens, immigrants, and students too young to speak with their vote. I feel a passion to live in America like never before.
How can I mourn this Fourth of July, when instead I can celebrate the strength and diversity of these voices? I can lament our current government, or I can view this collective moment as Saunders’s Lincoln did his, as an opportunity, if not a duty. This is the year in which my cousin prepared for deployment and my niece’s father won his citizenship. Both are sacred, both demand recognition this holiday.
The American Experiment was never focused on its leaders, but on the people that give them their mandate to govern. It’s only in danger if we forget our role, but the people today are awake. In Saunders’s words, “we are ready…are angry, are capable, our hopes are coiled up so tight as to be deadly, or holy…turn us loose…let us at it, let us show what we can do.” This is why I will, after all, celebrate this Fourth of July. I can’t say our situation will improve in November, but if we harness the energy in America right now, I’m optimistic. The people have managed themselves before, and we can do it again, are doing it now. And that is worth a party.